jawline

The Teen Boys Live-Broadcasting Positive Messages to Fangirls Who Want to Hug Their Brains Out

Filmmaker Liza Mandelup talks about her surprisingly moving documentary ‘Jawline,’ which goes inside the surreal, asexual world of boy broadcasts

About halfway through Jawline, the endlessly fascinating and ultimately heartbreaking new documentary that premieres on Hulu this Friday, we see a young woman waiting in line to meet her favorite celebrity. But he’s not a musician or an actor — he’s part of the world of “boy broadcasts,” in which teenagers live-broadcast to their fans online, offering little more than positive messages, sparkling personality and a few moments of unfiltered interaction. Their talent is their availability. Occasionally, these boys will do tours and meet-and-greets, and this anonymous young woman is at one such event, holding a sign with a simple message: “Notice Me.”

Those two words pretty much sum up the transactional relationship that occurs between boy broadcasters and their fangirls. The young men shower their followers with unconditional love, and in turn, the audience makes them stars, pulling them out of obscurity — not to mention possibly unhappy, difficult home lives. 

Photographer Liza Mandelup became interested in this subculture and its inner workings, so she started filming fangirls in the hopes of finding the ideal boy broadcaster to be the subject of her documentary. That’s when she met Austyn Tester, a 16-year-old from a small town in Tennessee who had been building a social-media presence. With his sweet disposition and dorky laugh, Austyn resembles plenty of awkward American teenagers — except for the fact that he’s been blessed with gorgeous skin, dreamy eyes and model(ish) looks. 

His beauty is a large part of his appeal, but as Jawline demonstrates, what perhaps makes him an ideal live-broadcaster is how good he is as a listener. He treats each giggly girl he talks to online or in person like they’re the most interesting, wonderful young woman in the world — he notices them. Likewise, they notice him, moving him one step closer to his goal, which is to become famous — the only thing he really wants in a world where he lives with his single mom and harbors memories of an absent, abusive father. 

On paper, Jawline might sound darkly comic or a surreal, distorted nightmare of Living Online, so it’s to Mandelup’s credit that she resists the temptation to use her feature-length debut as a cudgel to bash this community. Instead, Jawline is a surprisingly agile meditation on teenage anxiety and the ways that the internet has both soothed and exacerbated those anxieties. But it’s also an engaging look at the nuts-and-bolts of an emerging industry, introducing us to Michael Weist, an entrepreneurial young twentysomething based in L.A. who’s shepherding boy broadcasters’ careers. Austyn wants a piece of that success, and for a moment it looks like he may be on his way after signing with a manager, but those hopes eventually give way to the cruel reality of a business that’s often chasing after fool’s gold. Being beautiful and a good listener aren’t always enough.

In Jawline, we witness plenty of shallow adolescent behavior — fangirls losing their mind over callow boy broadcasters, live-broadcasters espousing empty inspirational bromides about faking it ‘til you make it — but Mandelup constantly undercuts our desire to mock by pinpointing the real pain consuming Austyn and his followers. Mandelup understands that pain — as she tells me, she had an intense teenage life herself. (As for how old she is, she’s cagey, only saying, “I was in my 20s when I filmed this.”) She was far more forthcoming when discussing the visual aesthetic of boy broadcasters, the sexless mating rituals of fangirls and the rampant professional exploitation that goes on in the wild, wild west of live-broadcasting.

I read that you’d been thinking about doing something around the phenomenon of live-broadcasting for about a year before even meeting Austyn. What was the appeal for you?
I’d done a short, Fan Girl, that followed a couple of girls to a show. I became really interested in filming with the guys — [the girls] were all talking about them like they were these mythological creatures, and I was like, “Who are they really?” [The girls] also were just talking so much about how they were just, like, regular, normal guys — and, somehow, they managed to make money off of this and make all these girls fall in love with them. I thought the whole thing was extremely bizarre — I’m like, “This feels off. Something feels weird here.” It seemed like, from the girl’s perspective, getting to know them on an intimate level was truly impossible. And I had this a-ha moment: “Oh, as a documentary filmmaker, I can get to know them on that level.”

So I filmed for a year, and some of that stuff, it’s in the film — we went to shows and interviewed a lot of girls. But we also had some false starts with boys — the hard part about casting it was thinking about the criteria for who the lead should be. I was like, “He has to be really normal.” Like, Middle America. I was just picturing this All-American type of boy. But I wasn’t sure: What would stand out about someone? And it was being genuine in this world that’s selling authenticity — but being actually authentic was the most complex thing in the end. 

I also came up on the internet, but a different kind of internet. The time in my life when I was a teenager was a very intense time for me — I think that I understand how dramatic the teenage years can be. When I started [thinking about this project], I remember feeling like I wanted to make something about how intense my teenage years were, and then I started thinking, “How different would that be if I was a teenager today?” Then I started thinking, “What if I had the same teenage experience but with so much technology? It must be so different today. I want to know what it’s like.” 

The boys in Jawline all seem to have similar looks to Justin Bieber.
They all kind of look at Cameron Dallas and Justin Bieber, this sort of iconic person in their lives.

What’s the appeal of that pretty, almost feminine aesthetic?
It’s like an Instagram thing. I think that people, like Austyn, didn’t figure out all the things in the middle between “My Instagram presence” and “fame.” To them it was, “Instagram celebrity plus nothing equals fame.” The world of live-broadcasting takes out all that stuff in the middle. Cameron Dallas is someone who’s been able to just document his life and get famous for that.

But I think it’s more about “follow culture”: They saw someone else doing it the way that they could potentially see themselves doing it. It’s like they’re kind of quoting each other in that sense.

I was always curious when I was talking to them: “Why do you think that you have what it takes to be famous or to have all these followers?” And I think the first step to getting the confidence that you can do it is an aesthetic one. It’s like, “Oh, I can have that jawline. I could have that hair. I can have those abs. All these people have these things that make them famous.” That kinda goes back to the superficial world of Instagram and the internet in general, where it’s a very image-based space. But then someone like Michael comes in to say, “No, no, no, there’s a million cute boys out there. It’s an oversaturated market right now. [Right now] you’re cute, but there’s no longevity in it.”

It’s pointed out in the movie that these are celebrities who don’t actually have any creative talent. It’s stardom simply for being recognizable from the internet.
They’re selling connection, that’s what it is. They’re using the model of celebrities, but there’s a glitch. They’re using the same model as some celebrities would use to promote an album or promote a show, but they’ve realized that because of social media, they actually don’t need [the album or show]. They have access to the same platform, and so they’re just going to sell the connection part of it. So it’s like, “I will be there for you. I will be so loyal to you. I’ll be more loyal than any other celebrity you ever follow, because all my job is to be there for you.”

Jawline’s music seems central to what you’re trying to achieve in the film: It creates this sense of fantasy, but also something surreal and disturbingly disconnected from reality. Is that a fair description of your film?
It’s spot-on because they all live in a false reality where the internet is this imagined life that they have — they wish they could live that in real life. I was always trying to figure out the language for that — I see these [boy broadcasters] as dreamers who live in a fantasy who don’t like the reality they live in, and they created this alternate reality for their life where they feel like they’re a celebrity. Or from the girls’ perspective, they have a boy who loves them and cares about them with all his heart — everybody’s kind of living in this dream. But that dream just lasts a moment, because these boys are only like that for a moment, and the girls are only into it for a moment.

Austyn Tester, photo courtesy of Hulu

When the girls interact with these boys, it’s very asexual — lots of hugs. It feels like that time before full-on hormones take over young people.
I was always asking [the girls]: “What do you want from [the boys]? What is your dream? If you could [be with them], what would you do?” And it was always so innocent. I’d be like, “What do you like about them?” And they’d be like, “Oh, he just has the best jawline,” “I love his hair,” or “I just want to be normal with him.” I’d ask, “What do you mean?” And they’d respond, “Like, hang out and maybe get pizza and spend time with each other or go to the mall.” They were just like, “I just want him to notice me and think I’m special.”

It was almost like that’s what they wanted in their real life — they really just wanted to be walking down the hall at school and have one boy be like, “Hey, how’s your day going? You look pretty. You’re not even wearing makeup, and you look so beautiful.” That was their fantasy, and these boys fulfilled that — they realized there was a market that leaned into this. These girls have these specific needs for a very short time — they crave love and affection and can’t seem to get it amongst their peers because boys are immature at their age and not paying attention to them. Girls develop earlier — they start to have desires of, like, women, but they’re not there yet. So that’s where this whole creating-intimacy [idea] comes from, but in a very PG way.

At one point, Michael points out that the girls who come to the live events aren’t cheerleaders. There’s an insinuation that it’s predominantly unpopular, awkward girls who attend these events.
I think they’re girls that are struggling in some capacity. Every single girl that was at a show was escaping something. Whether it was traumas in their family, financial issues, just moved and had no friends, getting bullied because of the way they looked, [feeling] depressed and can’t connect to anybody — they all have something that brought them there. It wasn’t so simple as “She’s popular and you’re not!” because maybe some girl had a bunch of friends but still felt unloved. There was something that was missing in all of these girls. None of them, like Michael said, had the “complete package” kind of life: You know, their life was great, they had a bunch of money, a bunch of friends. Those girls didn’t come around.

It’s incredible to see Austyn mentioning online that he’s going to visit his local mall — and then when he gets there, girls are waiting there to swarm him. It’s not like he lives in some big city.
We were filming everything — like, we went to get pizza or to a trampoline park or IHOP — and girls would show up every step of the way, for every single thing we’d do. And it was like, “Oh, I drove six hours to come find you.” They’d come out of the woodwork for everything, and their parents would [accompany] them. I’d ask the parents, “Why’d you do it?” And they’d say, “She hasn’t had an easy life, and she’s not always happy, but something about these boys just puts a smile on her face, and I’m here to support her for that.” That would always be their answer.

And the moms end up following [the boys], too — it’s almost like that helps them to understand the seductive nature of it all. As a mom in the movie says, “I think they’re hysterical!” It was almost like you have to follow them to really understand their charm.

The boys aren’t overly masculine — these aren’t the quarterbacks or the jocks.
The boys are similar to the girls — they’re also rejects in their home lives. They also got bullied, and they also got made fun of. So they’re very similar to the girls in that sense. And that’s why, when the cameras aren’t rolling, they’re still [filming themselves] — we’d be going home for the day, and Austyn would be broadcasting all throughout the night. They’re getting something out of it that’s not just monetary. They’re meeting their need to feel validated. They weren’t popular, and this makes them feel popular. They get, like, a second chance.

Photo courtesy of Hulu

Austyn complains that classmates think he’s gay, even though he has tons of girls texting him because of his celebrity. Just curious: For boys who are gay, do they feel they need to hide that from their audience?
No, it’s actually the opposite. The gayer they act, the more girls like them. [laughs] It feels like, the modern teen, they all seem kind of fluid in that sense. Michael’s household [of boy broadcasters] had the whole LGBTQ+ spectrum — there was a trans boy, some of them were bi, some of them were queer, some of them were straight. Some of them were like, “I don’t know what I am.” Actually, that was one of the coolest parts, how that’s a non-conversation among kids anymore. I mean, in some spaces, obviously, like in the South in the middle of nowhere… 

Right, that intolerance would be something those kids would probably be escaping. That brings to mind another question. Austyn talks a lot about positivity — he’s always telling his followers that they’re awesome and should believe in themselves. He’s a big fan of the twins Julian and Jovani Jara, who are also very positive. Is this another example of live-broadcasters borrowing from each other, or is positivity just a sales angle that’s proven to work on fangirls?
That’s a complex question. Austyn likes the twins because they spread a positive message, and he feels like he can do the same thing. But I also feel like Austyn consumes positive messaging as a form of healing. He’s had a really tough life — he’s someone that’s like, “If I wake up every morning and tell myself enough positive things, maybe I can actually believe that my life is good.” So I think he absorbed it in a way that he believed it.

But I think it’s more about “Why is this positivity culture working for all these teenagers?” This is an entire movement with hundreds of thousands of people subscribing — why does it work? I don’t know the exact answer, but part of it is because there’s so much anxiety and depression among teens right now. There’s a lot of bullying. [Teens] so desperately need something to counteract a lot of it, so it’s this movement that sprung up — it’s almost like everybody soaked it up like a sponge.

While watching Jawline, I thought, “Live-broadcasting is probably not the most healthy environment, but it’s something that both the girls and boys need because they can’t get it anywhere else.”
That’s exactly it. People ask me: “Is this good, or is it bad?” There’s no one answer for that — it’s in the middle. All the people in the film [can’t find positivity] in their life anywhere until they go to the internet and to this online community. They desperately need it. I’m sure if they had their friends positively reinforcing them — if they had parents or teachers where they felt like they were getting this elsewhere — they wouldn’t turn to a random person that they follow online.

Photo courtesy of Hulu

What’s the fate of boy broadcasters? Do they just reach an age where they’re too old and their followers move on?
Well, this [phenomenon] is still kind of new, so we don’t know. But I think people will age out of it, and you have to go a different direction with it. So, for example, the twins are now DJs — they’re trying to use their fan base to promote that. But they said to me that, once they became DJs, they lost a lot of fans, because the fans were there for them doing things like telling them they’re beautiful.

Jawline indicates that Austyn’s dad was abusive, but we don’t see him in the movie. I was curious if you reached out to him.
We spoke with the dad, but for me, the most powerful thing in movies is when I feel like a few story details say enough. I feel like I understand what kind of dad [Austyn had]. He had a tough childhood, and I think his dad wasn’t there for him. [His dad] tortured the family a lot. I think that I did my job as a documentary filmmaker. I met the dad, and I understood the relationship he had in Austyn’s life. He was absent and he was abusive — how much screen time do we give someone like that?

But I always felt like there was a connection between [the dad] and what happens with [Austyn’s] manager. It felt like the manager was this father figure, and then when he started to be mean to [Austyn], it brought back all this childhood stuff, and he was all down and out. It was like someone had kicked him in the stomach a little bit.

It would be hard for Austyn not to make that connection — father figures let him down.
Exactly, he was with someone who said he’d be there for him and help him and change his life — and then [he was told] he wasn’t good enough. It’s a pattern — it just felt too familiar to him.

Along those lines, Jawline touches on something upsetting, which is the exploitation of these boys. Austyn enters into a bad deal with his manager — is this problem rampant?
Many managers that jump in, they’re coming from other things — they don’t really know how it works and they’re trying to make a lot of money. They’re giving these boys contracts that they don’t know how to interpret at a stage where they don’t have lawyers to hire to interpret them.

Austyn’s story is one of a ton. Almost every boy I met had some story about falling out with a manager, losing money, suing them, going on tour and not getting paid — they were all dealing with this. I just thought it was insane — but if you think about it, it’s like this recipe for [exploitation]. Here are these hungry, wide-eyed young boys… I mean, some managers took legal guardianship over some of these boys while they went on tour. They were being sent away from their parents to go on these tours — the parents were out of the loop and didn’t know much. It’s a recipe for them to get taken advantage of.

How does a teen not get taken advantage of? They have a strong family unit — they have strong parents who make sure it doesn’t happen, or good older siblings that can look after them. But so many of the people in this world don’t have that. When you start in a space where you don’t have that, you end up there. There’s nothing protecting them.